Change of heart? Law awaits

If you make a late decision to become a lawyer, there is a way but not for the fainthearted
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The Independent Online
Few professions cater for a change of heart. Decide your true vocation is in medicine or architecture after taking an English degree, and it's usually back to the drawing board. Not so the law. No matter what you study or what you do afterwards, for those suddenly gripped by the urge to be on the right side of the prosecution bench, a conversion course offers a simple route in.

Around 2,000 people a year take the common professional exam (CPE), which in 36 weeks brings you up to degree level in the essentials. Most courses are full-time, although many universities offer a two-year part-time, or even distance-learning, option.

It may be a simple route, but it's by no means an easy one. "The CPE is an exceptional course for exceptional students," says Colin Beatty, senior policy executive in legal education at the Law Society. "It is basically a post-graduate course in time and ethos, and we do expect students to do an enormous amount of reading and digesting information, a minimum of 45 hours of studying each week."

The CPE involves seven core legal subjects - contract, tort, criminal, land, equity and trusts, constitutional and administrative law and European law - with the equivalent of law finals at the end. And, like law graduates, you then face further training; prospective solicitors spend a year on the legal practice course, followed by two years' paid training with a legal firm; barristers undertake a year on the Bar vocation course and a year in pupilage.

At most of the 25 institutions offering the CPE, a 2:1 or above will secure a place. At some, however, you face tougher competition. City University, for instance, which traditionally takes on those heading for the Bar, gets six or seven applicants for each of its 150 places. You need excellent academic qualifications, a broad range of interests and good references from tutors to get in, according to Professor Martin Dockray, head of City's department of law. You must also show a proven commitment to the profession - most applicants do mini-pupilages beforehand, shadowing a barrister for two to three weeks to get an insight into the job.

Nevertheless, City's CPE attracts a broad range of applicants. The average age is 25, although it's not unusual to get people up to 10 years older, says Dockray. "A number of people have been working for several years. Many have had a long-standing interest in the law or have just reached a point in their careers where there is no obvious way forward. Sometimes they may have done a bit of legal work and found it congenial."

Around 600 people a year apply for the postgraduate diploma in law at Nottingham Trent, which combines the CPE and law practice course. However, the university only takes on around 100, preferring to go for quality rather than quantity. "We're basically looking for people who can cope with it," says course leader Nigel Firth. Although he prefers applicants to have a 2:1, they can make an exception for mature or overseas students.

The course is intense, but more interesting than a conventional law degree, believes Firth. "We aim to give depth and practical skills. It's not just a question of knowing the relevant cases, but how to apply them. There is inevitably a lot of rote learning, but we get our students to learn by getting them involved and actually using the theory, such as working out what may be wrong with a specific contract and then redrafting it before discussing cases that may relate to it."

Although law undergraduates spend three years covering what CPE students do in one, he is confident that his students end up equally competent. "A lot of law degrees are dull as ditchwater, with much that is irrelevant and boring. If you ask a recent law graduate, for instance, the basics of contract, more than likely they won' t know. With CPE students it's fresh in their minds, and they're committed - they're not just just doing it because they liked watching LA Law or because daddy told them to."

Many prospective employers agree. Although it costs firms more to sponsor CPE students, who study for an extra year, many actually prefer them. CPE students have the advantage of a broader education and added maturity, and some specialisms, such as science or a language, can be a prerequisite for patent or commercial work.

Although sorting out the money side can be difficult - the competition for contracts to pay fees and living expenses during training can be fierce - the potential rewards are huge. Some top city lawyers can earn up to pounds 700,000 a year, but even as an average one you can expect to get around pounds 70,000 by the time you've worked for six or seven years.

Richard Wormald, 31, is a barrister practising criminal law in London. He completed his CPE at City University four years ago.

I first thought of doing law in the sixth form, and had a place to do a law degree, but on taking a year out I decided law was boring. After going to York to do English and philosophy, I taught for two years in a prep school. I applied for the City course on a bit of a whim really. I liked teaching, but it wasn't very well paid and was a bit claustrophobic.

The course and Bar finals were excellent but very hard work. You need a good memory because there's an awful lot to learn, such as cases and precedents, but I enjoyed it more than my degree. The most difficult thing was money. I got an pounds 8,000 loan just for the fees, and with living expenses on top I ended up pounds 15,000 in debt.

Being a barrister can be very competitive, especially in London, but there's a lot of camaraderie at the bar, and I love being in court, the atmosphere of it. You get a real buzz when you get someone off who you feel should be acquitted; equally it's very satisfying getting a successful prosecution.